BURMA: Heroin Trade Tears Social Fabric of Ethnic Minorities

  • by Marwaan Macan-Markar (bangkok)
  • Inter Press Service

The special bins were introduced to Myitkyina University as part of a humanitarian gesture by two non-government organisations — the French-based Medecins Du Monde (MDM) and Holland-based Artsen Zonder Grenzen (AZG) — with the aim of reducing injuries that students often get from stepping on used needles and syringes strewn around the campus.

It is normal to find 'discarded bloody syringes, needles, and syringe packets (that) are littered in latrines, under stairwells and bushes, and even scattered on the football field', according to the Kachin News Group.

It is these details, which expose the alarming level of heroin addiction in the university of some 3,000 students, that Nawdin Lahpai of the Kachin News Group cites when painting a grim picture of 'the future leaders of the Kachins being destroyed by drugs'.

'The drug addiction was not as high as it is now in the university, which is located in the capital of the Kachin State,' the editor of the news organisation, based in Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai, told IPS. 'It has changed since 2004. Now heroin is easily accessible everywhere.'

Some estimate that over 50 percent of the male and female students seek a narcotic fix. 'Students can be seen openly purchasing drugs in shops, cafes, billiard centres and houses near the university,' with sales beginning as early as 8 a.m. in some places, states a brief study released Wednesday by Nawdin’s media group.

The leaders of the Kachin, an ethnic minority that has, like other ethnic groups, been persecuted by the Burmese military, place the blame for this situation of drug abuse squarely on the country’s junta.

They accuse the regime of promoting the narcotics trade to further torment the country’s beleaguered minorities — and weaken their social fabric.

'The military government must bear responsibility for this spread of drugs into the communities,' Col James Lum Dau, deputy chief of foreign affairs of the Kachin Independence Organisation, said in an interview. 'But the students being addicted to drugs also need to discipline themselves.'

Such concern about heroin use in Burma, also known as Myanmar, is shared in both the Kachin and the neighbouring Shan State, home to the ethnic Shan, near the Chinese border. Both provinces are where most of the opium — a thick paste extracted from poppy to make heroin — is grown in the country.

The Kachin and the Shan are among the 130 ethnic communities in Burma, majority of whose more than 55 million people are with the Burman ethnic group.

Currently, 46 of the Shan State’s 55 townships are growing poppy, Khuensai Jaiyen of the Shan Drug Watch told a press conference here on Sep. 29 to launch the Chiang Mai- based organisation’s 2010 report. 'This is attributed to the Burma Army’s reliance on taxation of opium, and its policy to allow numerous proxy militia to deal in drugs.'

'Most of the poppy-growing areas are under control of the Burmese army and the Burmese army’s local militia,' he added. 'The Burmese army needs the drug trade to feed its own troops.'

The continuing presence of poppy fields in the rugged, mountainous corner of Burma over a decade after the regime announced it was determined to eradicate the drug trade by 2014 troubles the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

In a December 2009 report, the U.N. agency revealed that the area under poppy cultivation had increased 50 percent since 2006 to 31,700 hectares. 'More than one million people are now involved in opium cultivation in Myanmar, most of them in Shan State, where 95 percent of Myanmar’s poppy is grown.'

In fact, '2009 saw the third successive annual increase in cultivation,' said Gary Lewis, head of the UNODC’s East Asia and Pacific office, in an interview. 'Our assessment convinces us that we need to remain very concerned about the extent of opium cultivation in Myanmar.'

This trend marks a reversal of the dramatic drop in Burma’s opium production in the mid-1990s, when it enjoyed the notoriety of being the world’s leading opium producer. The 1995-96 harvest season saw poppy cultivation peak at an estimated 163,000 hectares, producing 1,760 metric tonnes of opium, says the UNODC.

'At that time these figures were the highest in the world,' said Lewis. 'By 2001-2002 however, domestic cultivation had declined to 81,400 hectares and estimated opium production had decreased to 828 metric tonnes.'

The Burmese regime’s 1999 announcement that it would eradicate the drug trade in 15 years saw the country give way, in 2000, to Afghanistan as the world’s largest heroin supplier.

But the junta’s continued support of opium production convinces the likes of Khuensai that the regime’s ‘war on drugs’ is a 'charade'. 'This is evident from the junta’s local militias emerging as the new drug lords in Burma.'

The easy access to drugs in Kachin State exposes the junta’s plans 'to profit at the expense of the ethnic groups,' adds Nawdin. 'It is almost like a Cold War to destroy the young.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service